The Lure of Secrets in Fiction

I have a confession to make. I’m guilty of flipping to the last pages of a book to find out the secrets at the end.

I’m better than I used to be. When I was in primary school, I was a big fan of the mystery series, The Nancy Drew Files, and used to cheat by reading the ending more often than not. These days, I appreciate the pay-off from exercising patience (I simply read faster to get to the big reveal).

In her popular blog, Helping Writers Become Authors, K.M. Weiland states there is only one reason that readers read, and that’s curiosity. A clever author will “milk that secret for everything it’s worth” if they want the reader to continue reading their book (or you could just do what I did, and skip to the end).

I realised that I’ve always preferred to read (and write) stories based around a key secret and the consequences of that secret being revealed. I even noticed that ‘Secrets’ is one of the most popular words in the titles of books I’ve recently read and enjoyed:

    The Secrets at Ocean’s Edge by Kali Napier
    The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
    Little Secrets by Anna Snoekstra
    The Secrets She Keeps by Michael Robotham
    Her Mother’s Secret by Natasha Lester
    The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders
    The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

I’m not the only person who can’t resist a story with a shocking secret.

At this year’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival (BWF2018), I attended a session with crime fiction writers Aoife Clifford, author of All These Perfect Strangers and Second Sight, and the prolific Denise Mina, currently promoting her true crime novel, The Long Drop. The panel was chaired by Brisbane author, Ben Hobson (To Become A Whale) who asked both authors about secrets in fiction (predominantly crime fiction). Aoife noted that at the heart of a crime novel is a secret, especially in a country town or a place where you think you know everybody, but you don’t. Denise agreed that almost all crime fiction is based on getting the reader to “wonder something”.

As demonstrated by my list of ‘secret’ books above above, crime fiction isn’t the only genre using secrets to lure readers. There’s crime fiction on that list, but also historical fiction, and another popular genre for secrets – domestic noir. In his blog post, The Secret to Secrets in Novels on This Business of Writing, author C. Patrick Schulze notes that almost every type of novel can use the power of secrets by creating suspense, and to enhance the climax by revealing a shocking plot twist. A secret also provides an excellent source of conflict between characters. As Aoife Clifford stated at BWF2018, secrets are great because there’s so many things that can go wrong. They affect the relationships of characters who wonder, ‘what else are you keeping from me?’

The secret may not always be the answer to a whodunit but could be a family secret kept private, or as in some popular classics, a hidden wife locked in an upstairs chamber or the identity of a mysterious benefactor. One of the most popular novels (and now television adaptations) of late is Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies. The three main characters are all keeping a raft of secrets, each with their own potentially devastating consequences.

A writer with the ability to craft a well-timed secret is a bit of a secret in itself. At BWF2018, Ben asked Aoife and Denise about writing scenes where secrets are revealed. Aoife said this was the hardest thing of all. She stated that structure is really important and suggested delivering the message in small amounts by cutting away and then coming back, and telling the story of one important event from six different perspectives. Denise agreed with the idea of “parcelling information out” and asking yourself if you want the reader knowing before the protagonist. In her post, K.M. Weiland recommends writers reveal the answer at the latest possible moment in the story and at a time when it will be most devastating to the characters. Sometimes that may be halfway through the novel as in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

Secrets in fiction play on the reader’s desire to know the truth. A clever author will get the reader involved by reaching out to them, allowing them to become an active participant in the story. Finding out the answers can become a bit of an addiction. In the words of Aoife Clifford: “Secrets are delicious, we can’t get enough of secrets.”

What is the best book you’ve read with a secret? Let me know in the comments section below.

Buy Second Sight by Aoife Clifford here.

Buy The Long Drop by Denise Mina here.

Buy To Become A Whale by Ben Hobson here.


4 thoughts on “The Lure of Secrets in Fiction

  1. You’re right, secrets are so often at the heart of what makes a novel or story interesting to us as readers.
    I recently read The Geography of Friendship by Sally Piper, and loved the way it slowly became clear that all did not go well on the bushwalk the three friends took, many years ago.
    Now I’m going to be thinking about what secrets are in every book I read! Thanks for a great post.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. The Geography of Friendship by Sally Piper is definitely a book I’ve been wanting to get my hands on. It sounds so interesting. Your short stories have little secrets in them, too, I’ve noticed! In Descent (spoilers), the father is using his son to keep his secret. I love how that is revealed at the end of the story.

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  2. Great blog post, Alyssa! There are so many good books centred around secrets to choose from, but I read A Little Life fairy recently, and my vote goes to that book. The protagonist is keeping the most awful of secrets, and is unable to reveal them to those closest and most loving towards him. The secrets ruin his life in the most heartbreaking ways. A the secrets are slowly revealed to the reader, the other characters in the book don’t know about them until close to the end. This makes the book even more heartbreaking. It was such a gut-wrenching, but truly amazing read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading my post and for your comments, Marie. I’ve heard all about A Little Life but haven’t yet read it, and now I’m even more intrigued. It sounds like the author has a great grasp of using secrets in fiction and revealing them to the reader at key moments! I’ll add it to my ‘To Be Read’ list.

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